With Gaza cease-fire, Arab and European leaders look to secure peace

Two key issues are Israel's demand to stop arms smuggling and the Palestinian desire for an end to the economic blockade of Gaza.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (r.) spoke Sunday at a quickly convened summit of European and Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh designed to consolidate the gains of the cease-fire.
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With the violence stopped between Israel and Hamas, European and conservative Arab leaders turned their attention Sunday to securing a lasting peace deal.

"We look forward to an end to this sad page. We must not lose hope in peace ... because a just and comprehensive peace is the true guarantee for the security of the region’s peoples," said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, host of a summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

"We are ready to cooperate with any efforts, especially Egypt . . . to reach a definite agreement that meets our known demands to lift the blockade permanently and open all border crossings," Hamas said in a statement.

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Diplomats from Britain, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Spain, and Turkey, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, said they were looking for ways to secure a more stable peace by addressing the demands of the two sides.

Two key issues are Israel's demand to stop arms smuggling into Gaza, for which Europeans have offered military and technical assistance, and an end to the economic blockade of the territory that's been in place since 2007.

Israel, Hamas agree to cease-fire
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced on Saturday that Israel was declaring a unilateral cease-fire following an intensive three-week military campaign in the Gaza Strip, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Hamas followed suit on Sunday, saying it and its Islamist allies in the Gaza Strip would cease violence immediately and give Israel a week to withdraw from the territory.

Israel has not agreed to pull its soldiers out of Gaza or to open crossings into the strip, raising the possibility that the cease-fire could turn into little more than a short break in hostilities.

Mr. Olmert’s cabinet voted late Saturday night to back a plan to halt the offensive dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” amid mounting international pressure to reach a cease-fire with Hamas. Following a week of failed efforts on the part of Egypt, France, and Secretary-General Moon, to broker an official truce, Israeli officials began to declare over the last 48 hours that their main objectives in the war had been achieved.

“The conditions have been brought about that enable us to say that the aims of the operations have been reached,” Olmert said in a nationally televised address Saturday night. He said that if rocket fire at Israel stops, the IDF “will consider withdrawing completely from Gaza at a date that suits us.”

Olmert: Key achievements of the war
Olmert outlined what he said were the key achievements of the war, namely, that Hamas’ military arm has been driven to its knees.

“Hamas has been dealt a very serious blow, both in terms of its military infrastructure and the infrastructure of its government. Many of its people have been killed. Its leaders are in hiding. The tunnels that armed them have been destroyed.” The Israel Defense Forces, he said, had gained control of many of the launching sites for Qassam and Grad rockets, one of which fell on the city of Ashdod, Israel, even as Olmert’s cabinet met to discuss the cease-fire.

Olmert, who leaves office in less than a month when Israel holds new elections, all but boasted that Israel took Hamas by surprise, and warned that there would be more to come if militants dared to continue to fire rockets at Israel. He also expressed “great regret” at the loss of innocent lives in Gaza.

“Hamas did not believe that Israel would carry out such a large scale operation, especially before elections,” Olmert said in his speech in Tel Aviv. “If it continues to attack us, it will be surprised by our determination. If our foes will continue to fight against us, then we will feel justified in responding in full.”

Olmert noted that what made the cease-fire feasible was an Egyptian proposal, which included a promise from Cairo to take steps to prevent weapons from being brought into the Gaza Strip. Giving the package extra teeth was an official offer Saturday from Britain, France, and Germany to help prevent arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip, including a promise from Britain to provide naval support.

International support
On Friday, the US and Israel signed an agreement to stop the smuggling. The US agreed to work with NATO and regional governments to police the region, including stopping the flow of weapons between Iran and Gaza, stepped up intelligence cooperation, training, and patrols in the Mediterranean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and eastern Africa.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in signing the deal with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, said that the agreement was “one of the elements of trying to bring into a being a durable cease-fire.”

Grumbling from Hamas
Though Hamas changed its tune on Sunday, on Saturday top Hamas officials in the region rejected Israel’s unilateral truce as irrelevant.

“Either we hear what we have demanded or the result will be the continuation of confrontation on the ground,” Osama Hamdan, Hamas’s representative in Lebanon, declared in Beirut Saturday. The political head of Hamas, Damascus-based Khaled Mashaal, said at a summit in Qatar on Friday that Hamas would not accept Israel’s conditions for a cease-fire.

Similar views were heard from Hamas fighters in Gaza.

A militant, known as Abu Musab, who is involved in rocket-launching, said on Saturday that Hamas foot soldiers would not put down their arms without being told to do so by their superiors, and without being able to point to specific achievements. None of their goals, the militant said, had been met.

“If we don’t reach a fair agreement, then we lost all these souls for nothing,” said Abu Musab, who is a member of the Izz ed-Din al-Qassam Brigades. “We will follow the orders of our leaders, and so far, we haven’t received any new orders.”

Hours after the Israeli ceasefire began Sunday, Reuters reporterd that Gaza militants fired five rockets into the Israeli town of Sderot, causing no casualties. By the afternoon, another nine rockets hit Israel, Israeli police said. Israeli aircraft staged what appeared to be a limited response, attacking sites where the rockets were launched.

But Hamas is clearly weary from its losses, analysts say, and would do well with a break from battle in order to rebuild.

“It will hold for a while, because Hamas understands that Israel will not stand for any resumption of the rocketing, and that Israel will retaliate brutally, as it did now,” says Yitzchak Reiter, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I think they understand that there is a new situation in which Israel will retaliate very strongly against any violence whatsoever. And, Hamas needs time to build up all of what was destroyed. They need a period of calm, just for them to resume their own control over the Gaza Strip.”

Professor Reiter says that even if other groups in Gaza, such as Islamic Jihad, launch more rockets at Israel at this point, Israel will read it as a sign that Hamas has not given such groups a “red light.”

Resentment of Israeli troops
Though the unilateral cease-fire holds some hope of a respite from the violence, many Palestinians say the presence of Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip will, in and of itself, be a reason for Hamas to continue fighting. Israel withdrew troops and 8,000 settlers from Gaza in September 2005, but Palestinians say the occupation is ongoing because Israel keeps a land, sea, and air blockade on the territory.

Israeli tank fire killed two boys at a UN-run school in the northern Gaza Strip Saturday, a UN official said. An Israeli army spokesman said he was checking the report.

Several rockets hit Israel Saturday, and after the ceasefire was announced, eight rockets hit the Western Negev area on Saturday night. Nine IDF troops were wounded in Gaza operations Saturday, four of them seriously.

Mr. Ban, the UN chief, condemned the “outrageous” attack on the UN school.

Ban has been pressing for an immediate cease-fire, said that Israel’s declaration should accompanied by time frame for Israeli troop withdrawal. Israel, however, has only said that it will withdraw its tanks and forces when the rockets cease.

“The fighting on both sides must stop, that is first and foremost,” Ban said. “Then we can discuss all other matters.”

Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza contributed to this report, and material from the wires was used.

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